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Andrew Alderson: A taste of India

If you love cricket, you’ll love India... provided you use the sport as a key to unlock the best in the country’s culture, writes Andrew Alderson.
Choose any cricket ground when India is playing at home to experience sports immersion in its more pure form. Photo / AP
Choose any cricket ground when India is playing at home to experience sports immersion in its more pure form. Photo / AP

This week marks a decade since I became besotted with India and the country's obsession with cricket.

After exiting Mumbai airport into a sauna on October 16, 2006, Ravi's auto-rickshaw took me straight to Brabourne Stadium where New Zealand were playing South Africa in the Champions Trophy.

Sitting on a back seat lavished in 1960s shagpile, I pleaded for my sanity and once feared for my life. The "once" came at an intersection where Ravi swerved through approaching traffic, but failed to observe a red double-decker bus bearing down from the right with what appeared to be 30 or so of his countrymen hanging from the roof. Choosing brown shorts from the backpack proved wise in a city scarce on traffic lights.

Auto-rickshaws also offer pedestrians an adventure. Unless you're Moses, you're playing Indian roulette trying to cross an intersection. The trick is to waltz with the traffic. That concept holds merit until a bus teeters in your direction on two wheels.

On one occasion I dived like a Premier League footballer into some shrubbery, much to the locals' amusement, as thoughts of Indian hospitals and medical insurance bills flashed before my eyes. On the plus side, there's no better way to practise quick singles.


I'm no modern-day Vasco da Gama, but touring India to watch cricket is an expedition to be revered. Your sight, sound, smell, taste and touch overload in the chaos. Epiphany is generally a term used as hyperbole; not there.

On that opening day Stephen Fleming made what might be the most underrated 89 in New Zealand ODI history as part of 195 all out in 45.4 overs. To put his endurance in perspective, the heat caused me to glug six litres of water between the airport and the innings break. I had nothing to show for it but drenched clothing, and all I'd been doing was sitting... in the shade. The pitch disintegrated into the cricketing equivalent of an uncooked apple crumble as South Africa lost by 87 runs.

Lugging my backpack 20 minutes to the hotel added to the surreality. The streets were strewn with sleeping bodies and I met rats that looked like they lived on a diet of samosas. Yet I held no fear. Reincarnation remains a platform central to the ethos of many Indians, so your safety rarely feels threatened (intersections being the exception).

Almost ten years on, little had changed upon arrival in Kolkata for the second test between New Zealand and India.

Extremities remain on the wealth-poverty spectrum, but a burgeoning middle-class appears to have skewed the bell curve.

The marble-clad opulence of hotels such as the Taj Bengal and Oberoi Grand contrast with avalanches of litter and locals urinating in the street as your taxi weaves to the airport.

A cold beer, while surveying a manicured lawn in the shade of the Kenilworth Hotel's 3m-high ivy-clad walls, leaves you feeling serene and grateful that such oases provide shelter from the frenzy outside.

Balance that by striding 10 minutes to the Park St thoroughfare to be confronted by a three-year-old beggar with his baby brother in his arms. Regardless of how much food and water you can offer, only a hardened soul could escape without their heart and conscience turning to pulp.

At the 2011 World Cup, I remember sitting in Mumbai's Leopold Cafe and observing the bullet holes which pitted the walls following terrorist attacks less than 2 years earlier; or riding in any tuk-tuk with the wind in my receding hair and heart in my mouth; or offering a humble "thank you" and seeing the grin of the chap whose dexterity with needle and thread gave my sandals a three-year stay of execution.

The hospitality is just as generous. Imagine the finest curry house in New Zealand and voila - that's the media buffet during internationals. To avoid illness, I've always tried to eat local food for breakfast, lunch and dinner and made a priority of establishing key samosa and masala chai suppliers in each destination. It's worked.

Indian fans wave the Indian flag at a cricket match. Photo / AP
Indian fans wave the Indian flag at a cricket match. Photo / AP

Local scribes insist on inviting you to the best (not necessarily the most expensive) restaurants or to sample reputable street food. They refuse to let you put your hand in your pocket. The Delhi Press Club is another example, where a visitor's glass is never allowed to be anything less than half-full.

You'll seldom strike surly wait staff, either. Arm yourself with some basic Hindi, mention the cricket, the fact you're from New Zealand and name-drop Daniel Vettori for good measure. Facial muscles are likely to contort from grimace to grin and often you'll have instant access to a walking, talking human Wisden.

The Black Caps, through no fault of their own, get limited opportunities to absorb such cultural joys. Next to donning Groucho Marx glasses and jumping into the back of an auto-rickshaw, their chances of seeing India beyond air-conditioned buses, palatial hotels and mass security are minimal. Presumably many are broad-minded enough to seek that experience, but in terrorism-ridden and cricket-obsessed times, they can't afford to be too laissez-faire.

A paradox emerges. They receive red-carpet treatment, but it comes with the price of incarceration. Protection means they won't get mobbed, but the cost is that a country as kaleidoscopic as India can dilute to a bland canvas. Thankfully such circumstances don't happen all over the world, but the thought of a hotel-nets-hotel-ground routine is stultifying.

Cricket has been popular in India since its introduction via British colonial rule. The country made its test debut against England in 1932.

However, the real influence arrived when the Kapil Dev-led side won the World Cup in 1983. Suddenly the sporting influences of hockey and football began to diminish. Head to the maidans in the heart of most Indian cities to witness how the sport has infiltrated the nation. An army of mufti-clad players colonise the dustbowls.

This perhaps reflects the biggest change across the generations - the Indian caste system now has little impact on who plays for the national team. Politicking and rivalry still exists between cities and provinces but most Indian players rise to the top from modest middle-class backgrounds. The common man can achieve his dreams in a team picked on merit.

Test captain Virat Kohli is an example. He grew up in Delhi and lost his father, a criminal lawyer, to a brain haemorrhage when he was 18 in his debut Ranji Trophy season.

Walk around the streets in any of India's 'burbs and a game of backyard cricket is never far from bloom. This writer was the victim of a masterful con job while sauntering to his Nagpur hotel at the World Cup. Some children swarmed around as I ashamedly protected my pockets. I needn't have worried, they wanted my wicket, not my wallet.

Wielding a painted piece of wood presumably wrenched from a local building, I stroked two off drives. Feeling cocky, I faced a left-armer. Off a three-step run-up, the plastic ball swung away, then nipped back and smashed into the wooden chair used as stumps. I put the 'bat' under my arm and trudged off amid whoops of delight.

I'd wager I wasn't the first to fall for that one...

Such unbridled joy was amplified at the end of the tournament when, with a final batting flourish, MS Dhoni cleared long-on and India emerged victorious from Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium.

The spontaneous rejoicing in the streets was unforgettable.

Saffron, white and green painted faces swayed back and forth waving flags, beating drums and stamping feet. Trucks carrying crates of chanting supporters inched along the waterfront as more fans spilled out in a state of delirium.

A couple of beers in a mate's hotel room were accompanied by a soundtrack of awe, 28 years in gestation.

The sights were familiar on the latest New Zealand tour.

Kohli raised his arms in Kolkata and, as if by remote control, the crowd lifted its volume.

Similarly in Indore, as the light dimmed in the haze on the opening day of the city's maiden test, thousands of phone lights waved to the chant "Ind-ya, Ind-ya".

It was compelling theatre without a drop of alcohol drunk. Indians get intoxicated on shots of cricket alone.

In my experience, the most important thing as a correspondent is to unshackle yourself from the comfort of the air-conditioned press box and immerse yourself in the atmosphere, where possible.

It's where you find sport at its purest.

- NZ Herald

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